Facts Are Center Stage in Vice Presidential Debate

Facts Are Center Stage in Vice Presidential Debate
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

In the second debate of the 2012 general election campaign—the only debate between the Vice Presidential candidates—the facts themselves became one of the issues.

"Casual fibs, flat-out falsehoods: What other misleading gambits will Paul Ryan pull out at tonight's debate, " the @BarackObama Twitter account asked a short time before the debate began.

But our Investigations Inc. fact-checking team found neither Vice President Joe Biden nor Rep. Paul Ryan had a monopoly on the facts—or the casual fibs—on Thursday night.

In the opening exchange of the debate, Ryan assailed the Obama administration for its handling of the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

"This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it's indicative of a broader problem, " Ryan said. "And that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic and us less safe."

Biden called the charge "malarkey, " adding "not a single thing he said is accurate."

Asked for specifics, Biden blamed Ryan directly for any shortage of security at the compound.

"This lecture on embassy security — the congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, number one. So much for the embassy security piece, " Biden said.

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The charge is mostly true, but largely irrelevant.

Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that proposed cuts by House Republicans in the 2012 State Department Budget—including a $331 million cut in worldwide embassy security—would be devastating.

"Cuts of this magnitude will be devastating to our national security, " she wrote in a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers on February 14, 2011.

Some of the cuts were later restored in negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

This year, the Administration returned to Congress with a scaled-down request.

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"The work supported by this request is vital, " the State Department said in justifying its request for, among other things, $688.8 million in security upgrades for State Department facilities worldwide in fiscal 2013. The same document includes no increase in security personnel.

Biden also claimed the Administration was unaware of requests by personnel in Libya for additional security.

"We weren't told they wanted more security, " Biden said.

But in testimony this week before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, State Department Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom described extensive communications with the State Department over the summer about security staffing levels in Tripoli and Benghazi.

But Nordstrom generally had praise for the State Department's handling of the requests, and noted that the ferocity of the attack was unprecedented.

"Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault, " Nordstrom said in his written testimony.

On domestic policy, the candidates sparred over Medicare, with Ryan repeating the claim that Obama had cut $716 billion from Medicare to finance the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare.

"Here's the problem. They got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turning Medicare into a piggybank for Obamacare, " Ryan said.

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As we have reported, the Romney campaign's claims on the Affordable Care Act's Medicare cuts have typically ignored the fact that they cut payments to providers and do not impact beneficiaries. But Ryan took a different tack in the debate, warning that even cutting payments to providers is dangerous.

"Their own actuary from the administration came to Congress and said one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business as a result of this, " Ryan said.

But that is not what Chief Medicare Actuary Richard Foster said in written testimony submitted to Ryan's House Budget Committee on January 26, 2011.

The testimony did warn that some of the law's assumptions about whether hospitals and nursing homes—covered under "Part A" of Medicare—could absorb the cuts may be "unrealistic." But it did not say they would go out of business.

"Simulations by the Office of the Actuary suggest that roughly 15 percent of Part A providers would become unprofitable within the 10-year projection period as a result of the productivity adjustments, " the testimony warned, adding that the policy could be adjusted over time in exchange for smaller savings.

Ryan and Romney have proposed overhauling Medicare for people currently under 55, adding so-called "premium supports"--which critics call vouchers--to allow recipients to purchase private insurance if they choose, instead of traditional

Medicare. Ryan claimed the plan is bipartisan.

"It's a plan I put together with a prominent Democrat Senator from Oregon, " Ryan said.

But that Senator, Ron Wyden, distanced himself from the Ryan plan after Romney made a similar claim in August.

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"Governor Romney is talking nonsense. Bipartisanship requires that you not make up the facts. I did not 'co-lead a piece of legislation.' I wrote a policy paper on options for Medicare. Several months after the paper came out I spoke and voted against the Medicare provisions in the Ryan budget. Governor Romney needs to learn you don't protect seniors by makings things up, and his comments today sure won't help promote real bipartisanship, " Wyden said in a statement at the time.

But the policy paper released in December, 2011, does include many of the broad goals of the Ryan plan, including the controversial "premium support" program for private insurance, and a commitment to preserve the guarantee of traditional Medicare for seniors.

On taxes, neither candidate was willing to add clarity to how their campaigns' plans square with deficit reduction.

Asked what he would do beyond raising taxes on the wealthy to reduce the deficit, Biden offered no specifics, and appeared to scale back the Administration's position on the Bush tax cuts.

"Just let the taxes expire like they're supposed to on those millionaires, " Biden said. "We can't afford $800 billion going to people making a minimum of $1 million."

The President has argued the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire for people making more than $250, 000 per year, not $1 million.

But Ryan was no clearer about how he would fund Mitt Romney's proposal for a 20 percent across-the-board cut in marginal tax rates, insisting it would be worked out in a bi-partisan agreement with Congress.

"What we're saying is, deny those loopholes and deductions to higher-income taxpayers so that more of their income is taxed, which has a broader base of taxation so we can lower tax rates across the board, " Ryan said.

But he declined to offer specific on loopholes to be closed or spending to be cut.

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn